USS Massachusetts

Rhode Island Reunion

10-14 September 2014

View the memorial bell ceremony and speech (24 min.) or just the memorial bell ceremony (3 min.) video.

By George S. K. Rider

Boarding USS Massachusetts
Sean Stackney
Pier 1 Newport, 1961
Naval War College Museum
Harry Benoit
USS Massachusetts

WARWICK, Rhode Island — A daunting task! How do you get your arms around five days filled with so many poignant memories, so many stirring events, and so many wonderful shipmates and families?

It all started for Dorothy and me on Sept. 10 with the hour-long drive from our home in Essex, Conn., to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick.

I was struck by the large picture of Rear Admiral Raynor A. K. Taylor prominently displayed on an easel in the hotel lobby as we entered. The inscription on the bottom read, “Gone Yet Not Forgotten. Your Spirit Will Live In The Hearts Of Us All.” The picture set the tone for the five days ahead. He served aboard Abbot during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

From the moment we checked in until the fond farewells at breakfast on Sunday, the series of unforgettable events and conversations with shipmates and their families that built on the memories of past reunions and the trove of stories retold, with the new tales that were added by shipmates joining us for the first time, all make an accurate recording of all of them difficult to recount without leaving something out. The stories and new faces soon became part of the fabric that is the ongoing history of the U.S.S. Abbot.

After checking in and unpacking, we headed for the well-stocked hospitality room and were greeted by the earlier arrivals. Committee members were busy sorting out beautiful gift baskets and memorabilia for Friday night’s raffle.

The number of shipmates, families and friends eventually grew to 117.

The hotel jitney transported a dozen of us to a nearby seafood restaurant for an early dinner. Afterward, we gathered in the hospitality room. Dave Rodgers presented me with a coffee mug bearing a picture of Admiral Taylor in uniform, which has already been put to good use. Each Taylor family member received a similar mug.

Reveille on Thursday was at 6:30 a.m.. After breakfast in the Hospitality Room, we boarded two 56-passenger buses for a driving tour of Newport, a windshield tour of Abbot’s former home port at Naval Station Newport and a stop at the Naval War College Museum.

The nostalgia accompanying our return to Newport was tinged by the melancholy memory of what once was. Jack Kelleher emailed me and reminded me of how things had changed. His recollections echoed some of my thoughts on the window tour of Newport that began our reunion. Pier #1 was now just a concrete finger jutting out from the shore with a shed or two on it. Gone were the nests of Destroyers four deep, and the tender tethered to the opposite side of the pier. Gone too is CruDesLant’s headquarter’s building, the old Datum Club and all the buildings on that side of the base.

Thames Street in Newport bears little resemblance to the bustling, bar-dotted sailor’s retreat that we so fondly remember. Many of the bars have been replaced by trendy shops and boutiques. The waterfront now resembles a Hollywood movie set. Where once sailors in blues and white hats, and chiefs and officers in khakis hustled from place to place, now distinguished looking boaters in Bermuda shorts, polo shirts, and jaunty sailing caps are milling around the street or fussing aboard huge yachts, whose size and intricate electronic gear boggle this old sailor’s mind.

Gone also are other favorite haunts like the fleet landing and the ferry slip. The Moorings is still there, the only remaining window back into the sweet period of a time gone by.

At noon we headed over to Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass., and a luncheon in the main deck dining area of the U.S.S. Massachusetts.

Following lunch we assembled on the fantail for the stirring and somber 9/11 memorial service, which honored Admiral Taylor, my brother Kenneth Rider, Captain Robert Norman, Teddy Sarama, John Koscielniack, Walter Baranger, Edwin Vaughn, William Hersey, Edward Wilson and Robert De Long.

Ted Karras introduced Navy Chaplin Donald Anderson, who delivered the invocation, a stirring talk and the prayers. Ted introduced The Hon. Sean J. Stackley, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who read the names of each departed shipmate. Family members stood as John Jackson tolled the ship’s bell after each name. Secretary Stackley was accompanied by two naval staff officers, Capt. Dan Brintzinghoffer and Cmdr. Thurraya S. Kent.

Secretary Stackley addressed 103 of us, telling of his trip from Washington early Thursday morning. As he and his staff entered the terminal for the flight to New England, they noticed an unusually crowded waiting area and a beautiful chorus of voices singing “America The Beautiful.” An honor flight had landed and was debarking a number of World War II veterans arriving, some on canes and some in wheel chairs, to take part in 9/11 memorial activities.

Secretary Stackley said that witnessing the arrival of the honor flight had been a fitting beginning to a day that would honor our departed shipmates.

He brought personal letters from Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, honoring the service of our World War II veterans in attendance, Harry Benoit and Howard Nickerson. Later, a third letter was presented to our third World War II veteran attendee, John Alford, at his home in Falls Church, Va.

At the conclusion of Secretary Stackley’s inspiring remarks, a wreath was tossed into the sea on the port side of the Massachusetts. One by one each of us in the congregation honoring those for whom the bell tolled, had been given a beautiful long stemmed rose. As we approached the rail and looked down at the floating wreath, we threw the rose into the sea.

Back at the hotel a few hours later, catnaps were in order for some before we reassembled in the hospitality room before dinner. By now, Rich Baran and his wife Peggy had presided over the display of 27 gift baskets, each with its own regional ingredients. Raffle tickets were purchased and placed in containers in front of each basket, as shipmates made their choices.

Nearby a number of items were also available to choose from, also with containers for raffle tickets: a door prize; a large bronze plaque donated by Kathleen Hersey from her father William Hersey’s World War II memorabilia, engraved with the significant dates in the life of the Abbot; two large photos of the Abbot signed by all crew members present; an American Flag that was flown over the United States Capitol to commemorate the Abbot’s 2014 reunion; two Navy mess trays; and chits for free hotel lodging.

The hotel jitney transported a group of us to an Italian restaurant for another great dinner. Later, many of us returned to the hospitality room for more story telling and the purchase of raffle tickets. Many of the ladies had already turned in.

On Friday, reveille was again at 6:30 a.m.. The two tour buses departed for the submarine base in Groton, Conn.. We entered the base and stopped at a large building near the Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine, now on permanent display in the Thames River. We were ushered into a large auditorium where we viewed a movie about our submarine fleet. The base commander, Capt. Carl A. Lahti, presided over a lengthy and informative Q&A session. We then boarded the Nautilus. Some of us went below decks.

Due to the persistence and hard work of Commander Kent working with the base staff, we were afforded a unique opportunity to drive through the lower base road and view a number of submarines home berthed and readying for deployment, or home after months under the sea in far away places. One of the boats was adorned with a huge red, white and blue lei that was secured to the top of the sub’s sail and stretched to the deck below, made by ship’s company wives to honor the recent return of their loved ones from a six-month deployment. Our bus was inspected by security upon entering the base and no pictures were allowed on our lower road drive.

We departed the submarine base and headed for lunch in the Officer’s Club at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, followed by a driving tour of the campus.

We joined other shipmates for dinner at the hotel restaurant on Friday in time for the 8 p.m. drawing of the winners of the gift baskets and memorabilia, presided over by Rich and Peggy Baran. This year, because of travel restrictions and the difficulty of carrying items for the basket raffle, John Alford 20 donated Abbot shirts.

Rich Baran’s Knights of Columbus group in Long Island is raising funds for a special tracked wheel chair to be donated to a wounded veteran. In the past, excess funds raised by the Abbot basket raffle were given to the Navy League and the Wounded Warriors, but this year Rich, with the blessing of Ted Karras and John Jackson, agreed to support the K of C campaign. A total of $1,000 will be given to representatives of the Independent Fund for the purchase of the chair.

In recognition of Ted’s heroic efforts and dedication, the bronze plaque bearing the Abbot’s significant historic dates was removed from the raffle and awarded to him, to a great and well deserved round of applause.

Saturday’ dinner was preceded by a group picture and opportunities for individual photos. After we were seated, colors were rendered by U.S. Navy Sea Cadets from Kingston, R.I. Ted’s daughter Tammy led us in singing the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. Jim Saben offered a prayer. Ted Karras entertained us with the story of how the various activities came about and the story behind the incredible appearance of Secretary Stackley and members of his staff, which for many of us was the icing on the cake.

Later in the program, Ted walked around the room with a microphone and asked some of us to say a few words. My turn came. I was standing with Ted when David Rodgers asked to speak. He was seated with his wife Lynn, Dorothy, me, Mary Jane Taylor, her son Andrew, his wife Lili and their 9-year-old twins, Michael and Michelle.

Dave first presented two large framed pictures of Admiral Taylor, one to his wife Mary Jane Taylor and one to her family. The Taylor’s not only attended the Memorial Service and Saturday night’s dinner, they spent the entire reunion with us. Dorothy and I are honored to be seated at their table.

Dave then again reached down beside his chair and produced two framed posters, one for Ted and one for me, depicting the harrowing 63-degree roll we took in a hurricane in the south Atlantic in 1956. Ted and I were both on Abbot’s bridge. I later wrote about the incident in a story entitled “5 Degrees From No Return.”

The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “The Day God Held Our Fate In His Hands.” The poster is already hanging in my office. What a wonderful reminder of younger days and shipmates and friends here and departed. Looking at this picture gives me chills. Thank you Dave.

The incredible turnout was due to Ted and Mary Lou Karras, Rich and Peggy Baran, John Jackson, Jay Hershberger, Chris Bayley, and #1 cheerleader John Alford. Nine first-timers were added to our ranks. The final total, 117, was in part due to the telephone campaign organized by Ted and conducted by his committee and other willing hands.

Sadly the dinner gathering had to end, as did the reunion, with the last breakfast in our hospitality room.

The only consolation is that Teddy is already hard at work planning our 2016 reunion in Mayport, Fla.

One final thought: Mary Vaughn and her family as always were a highlight of the reunion, her daughter Charlotte Brockwell, grandson Chris Brockwell, his wife and their daughter Destiny contributed in so many ways.

What a joy it was to watch the three youngsters, Destiny, Michael and Michelle Taylor, so polite, huggable and energetic. The memories they will carry with them are a reminder to all of us of what is right about this great country and the reasons for our service.